Sometimes encouraging a child, any child, to participate in team sports can be a challenge both physically and mentally. They have fears of rejection, fears of not knowing the sport in its entirety and just general fears of the unknown. For children with ADHD, it poses additional challenges due to the cluster of symptoms that can interfere with their performance. These symptoms include:
- slow processing of visual and/or auditory stimuli
- slower reaction times
- poor impulse control
When these troubles surface, be optimistic and prepare your child for these hurdles – this will increase the odds of your child enjoying, and more importantly, succeeding, in all sports.
While it’s important to consider your child’s preferences in sports, don’t hesitate to tactfully present your own point of view. There are certain roles, such as infielder in baseball or offense in soccer, which offer much more “game-time stimuli” to keep your child’s attention on the game. Also, there are other factors, such as a preference for team vs. individual sports, which should also be reviewed in light of your child’s unique pattern of strengths and limitations.
Here are some strategies to help prepare your child for sports:
- Train your child to recognize their self-defeating patterns.
A history of academic and / or social struggles may compel children with ADHD to focus solely upon winning or peak performance to compensate for deeper feelings of inadequacy. This can leave them devastated by disappointment. Consider expressing the importance of such things as “the assist”. Assisting a fellow team member in scoring a goal in a soccer game is just as important as scoring the goal itself. Also explain to your child that should the team lose, to use that loss as a positive way of working on athletic improvements, social opportunities, and mental game growth. This is also true for non-team sports such as tennis or golf.
- Encourage your child to identify their “break points.”
Break points signify those events that usher in emotional meltdowns. Defeat at the hands of a younger opponent or sibling, repeated strike-outs, or on-field mistakes may bring on a parade of painful emotion. Familiar and negative self-talk or “put-down-myself talk” tied to the chronic frustration of ADHD, acts as quicksand, pulling some children to the point of self-loathing. Encourage your child to identify their break points and also share what you have observed.
- Offer your child “positive self-talk” messages to replace their self-defeating ones.
Two of the most important goals in helping a child with ADHD adjust are to help them develop self-acceptance and set realistic expectations. Sports offer an opportunity to guide him towards these goals. Suggest they practice saying to themselves, “I may lose or not always play my best, but I will try my hardest not to beat myself by losing my mental game.” Similarly, ask your child to balance effort and expectation with the self-statement: “I will try my hardest to win but be prepared to deal with whatever happens.” Ask them to come up with their own positive self-talk for one of their break points. Write down their response so they can refer to it as needed. Do the same with their other “break point” scenarios so that they are mentally prepared for those situations.
- Emphasize the influence of confidence and self-control to success, no matter the score.
Athletic competition parallels many of the academic and life challenges faced by all children, including those with ADHD. Developing skills such as poise under pressure, graceful defeat, and quick recovery from error help build character. Help your child understand the “bigger picture” and “being the bigger person” of how sports provide a training ground for life. Strategize how to handle fooling around by teammates, harassing opponents, and other challenges. Inoculate them to these inevitable experiences by having them rehearse positive self-talk while practicing at home.
Collaborating with Your Child’s Coach
Your child’s coach is another key player to include in pre-game preparation. Disclosing your child’s ADHD may backfire so it is wise to proceed with caution. However, chances are that their coach already has much experience coaching children with ADHD (among other challenges) so informed guidance delivered by a supportive coach will greatly benefit your child.
The challenge is to communicate helpful information to the coach effectively without insulting him or coming across as a pushy parent. When approaching the coach, consider the following:
- Define your child’s specific problem rather than giving a broad label that is open to misinterpretation.
Simply explaining that your child has ADHD can invite misunderstanding. Well-intentioned coaches may err in the direction of “over-accommodating” the problem, creating the impression your child is receiving preferential treatment. It could also lead the coach to reduce your child’s playing time. Here is a more effective approach: “My child has ADHD, which means their ability to pay attention for extended periods and to control distracting behaviors is not as strong as others their age. If these problems surface, please privately discuss them with him and remind him that being on a team carries responsibilities. Also, let me know if this happens.” Be as specific as possible and advise the coach of any strategies that work for you at home that may also work for your child on the field (see below).
- Suggest approaches that are easy to implement, not embarrassing, and linked to home-based strategies.
Most coaches will consider suggestions for simple and effective strategies. For example, suggest that the coach emphasize appropriate behavior if he observes your child misbehaving by calling out your child’s name and pointing to their own head with a forefinger to signify the need to keep the child’s “thinking side” in charge. Tell the coach that having ADHD makes it hard for children to pick up important clues used by players to give themselves instructions, such as the need to back up the short stop if playing left field. Ask the coach to conference with your child about the role of clues and self-instructions as they apply to the game. Emphasize that when your child’s teammates misbehave, your child may be tempted to join in. Suggest the coach address the baiting behavior of your child’s teammates.
- Tactfully stress the value of positive reinforcement, close supervision, and appropriate boundaries and consequences.
Coaches should be aware that the behavior of children with ADHD varies greatly depending upon certain factors. Explain how relaxing the rules and boundaries can be problematic for your child and that structure works best. Also mention that when an adult loses their temper, it may trigger a similar reaction in children with ADHD.
- Ensure your child is aware of the discussion and prepared to receive the coach’s signals.
Remind your child of the importance of “mental game preparation” before games and practices so the coach won’t have to provide frequent reminders. Consider including your child within at least part of the conversation with the coach in order to facilitate active participation. Depending upon your child’s age and maturity, they can be encouraged to advocate for themselves in this process, and learn valuable lessons about seeking helpful accommodations and communicating their needs in a respectful manner.
- Express appreciation.
Wrap up your conversation with the coach by saying, “I appreciate your willingness to listen to my suggestions and I realize in the heat of competition you won’t be able to follow them all. All I ask is that you try and also that you keep me posted.”
Coaching kids, especially those with ADHD, in sports entails considerable challenge and reward for parents and coaches alike. When you offer your child insight and strategies to guide him through the hurdles, sports participation can be a positive experience for your child.
For more information, please contact Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org.